Have you caught the new “The Black Church” docuseries on PBS? In a season where Black women like Stacey Abrams have triumphed and ministers like Raphael Warnock have won congressional seats, the series is an important window into this key institution.
Understanding how the Black church came to be and how it has become central to Black influence, life, and even survival is important viewing.
The series was conceived and is hosted by the inimitable literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Gates is a masterful storyteller who brings Ivy League scholarship into our homes through this and other projects.
The Harvard professor hailed from the hills of West Virginia and learned his storytelling skills from his mother, a gifted writer who was often called upon to write the obituaries and eulogies of friends and family members. Gates grew up hearing his mother weave together the meaning and history of people’s lives, offering context and perspective and answering the question I love to ask, “How would you like to be remembered?”
He cites her work as an influence on his own. It takes moxie to tell the story not just of a single person but of entire cultures, and Gates has it. Here’s how:
As an English and leading African American studies researcher and intellectual professor, Gates has built a lifetime of scholarship exploring African American literature. His work fosters an appreciation for how African Americans have survived and were built and created by adopting and adapting from the dominant white culture. Much as metal is alloyed and refined, African Americans have fused traditions and tools from across cultures to build something stronger and more resilient than the parts.
Gates has long advocated for African American literature to be studied and appreciated just as Western literature is studied and appreciated. He advocates for an inclusive canon of literary works that recognize relationships and influence across cultures.
His point of view has drawn fire from several sides: those who dismiss African American literature and those who want to keep it entirely separate. It takes moxie to stake out a middle-of-the-road position, and Gates has it.
Gates’ point of view is especially well-taken as I write this in the month of February when we celebrate Black History Month. While it is good to emphasize Black history for a season, it’s even better used as a starting point to more deeply appreciate Black history throughout the year.
Moxie helps people find themselves.
Perhaps Gates’ most notable foray into the popular culture has been his long-running PBS series “Finding Your Roots.” The series uses genetic testing and research to help prominent people trace their heritage, often upending guests’ ideas of who they are and where they come from.
Gates often draws on his own heritage, which includes a soldier who fought in the Revolutionary War.
It’s remarkable how Gates embraces and defines the larger metanarrative and zooms in on individual stories, and weaves both together across the body of his work to demonstrate how interconnected we all are.
Moxie makes peace.
It’s difficult to imagine that anyone who observes the distinguished professor and considers him any threat. But that’s exactly what happened on July 16, 2009!
Gates had returned from a long trip abroad to find his front door jammed shut. Gates was exhausted and just wanted to get inside his own house and rest. His taxi driver helped him work the door open and get inside. Their efforts caught the attention of a neighbor, who called the police to report a potential break-in. The police officer arrived and ended up arresting Gates for disorderly conduct.
The flap blew up into a national controversy when then-President Barack Obama was asked to weigh in on the matter. In off-the-cuff remarks, the president said the officer “acted stupidly,” which angered law enforcement officers. Tensions were eventually soothed when President Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden invited both Gates and the White House officer to “sit down for a beer together” in what came to be known as the “Beer Summit.”
Gates and the officer made peace at the summit, but it re-ignited a long-simmering conversation about interactions between police and people of color. That conversation continues today, especially in my hometown of Louisville, Ky.
If I had the opportunity to talk with Gates, I’d ask for his thoughts on current tensions. What would you want to ask?
Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Louis_Gates_Jr.
Finding Your Roots TV Program’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finding_Your_Roots
Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Arrest Controversy Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Louis_Gates_arrest_controversy